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Soweto Massacre
Part of European Wars of Global Domination
Soweto students protesting the use of Afrikaans, a European language as a medium of education.
LocationSoweto, a section of south west Johannesburg, South Africa
DateSept 16, 1976
Deaths700 - 3000 [1] [2] School childen, men and women.
Injuredmany thousands
AssailantsSouth African Army, Soweto Police

The Soweto Massacre, was carried out by the South African Aparteid government in response to a series of high school student-led protests in the country that began on the morning of June 16, 1976.[3] Students from numerous Sowetan schools began to protest in the streets of Soweto, in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools.[4] An estimated 20,000 students took part in the protests. The number of people killed by the heavily armed military police has been reported anywhere from 700 - 3000 peopleCite error: The opening <ref> tag is malformed or has a bad name. The Aparteid government, as well as simpathizers of said government usually report 176 dead with estimates up to 700.[5][6][7] The 16th of June is now a public holiday, Youth Day, in South Africa, in remembrance of the events in 1976.[8]

Background of the protests

Afrikan high school students in Soweto protested against the ''Afrikaans Medium Decree'' of 1974 which forced all black schools to use Afrikaans and English in a 50-50 mix as languages of instruction.[9] The Regional Director of Bantu Education (Northern Transvaal Region), J.G. Erasmus, told Circuit Inspectors and Principals of Schools that from January 1, 1975, Afrikaans had to be used for mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies from standard five (7th grade), according to the Afrikaans Medium Decree; English would be the medium of instruction for general science and practical subjects (homecraft, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science).[9] Indigenous languages would only be used for religion instruction, music, and physical culture.[10]

The association of Afrikaans with apartheid prompted black South Africans to prefer English, if any European language was to be used. Even the homelands regimes chose English and an indigenous African language as official languages. In addition, English was gaining prominence as the language most often used in commerce and industry. The 1974 decree was intended to forcibly reverse the decline of Afrikaans among black Africans. The Afrikaner-dominated government used the clause of the 1909 Constitution that recognized only English and Afrikaans as official languages as pretext to do so.[11]

Punt Janson, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the time, was quoted as saying: "A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory. He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking and the man who has to give him instructions may be either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarrelling [sic] about the medium of instruction among the Black people as well? ... No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa ..."[12]

The decree was resented deeply by Afrikans as Afrikaans was widely viewed, in the words of Desmond Tutu, then Dean of Johannesburg as "the language of the oppressor". Teacher organizations such as the African Teachers Association of South Africa objected to the decree.[13] A change in language of instruction forced the students to focus on understanding the language and not the subject material. This made critical analysis of the content difficult and discouraged critical thinking.[14]

The resentment grew until April 30, 1976, when children at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike, refusing to go to school. Their rebellion then spread to many other schools in Soweto. A student from Morris Isaacson High School, Teboho 'Tsietsi' Mashinini, proposed a meeting on June 13, 1976, to discuss what should be done. Students formed an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council)[15] that organized a mass rally for June 16 to make themselves heard.

In a BBC/SABC documentary broadcast for the first time in June 2006, surviving leaders of the uprising described how they planned in secret for the demonstration, surprising their teachers and families (and the apartheid police) with the power and strength of the demonstration.

Influence of the Black Consiousness Movement

Black consciousness marked a radical break with the resignation, the fear and the apathy of the 1960s. One of its main contributions was the injection a new kind of courage and self-assertion among its members — a kind of courage which would help them to brave assault and torture, and which would lead them to refuse to be intimidated, whatever the threat.

Opinions differ as to what kind of impact black consciousness and its school pupil organisation SASM had on the climate of opinion among Soweto’s school-goers and how much it contributed to the 1976 students uprising. By 1973 SASM had branches in nine schools in Soweto.

Bantu Steve Biko speaking om Black Consiousness

Resources were scarce, however. The organisation was set back in March of that year by the banning of the top leadership of the South African Students Congress (SASO) as well as Mathe Diseko, the national secretary of SASM. SASM revived in 1974, encouraged by the military coup in Portugal in April 1974 and the decolonisation of Mozambique. As SASM leaders began to gain confidence, they organised public meetings at which militant speeches were given.


On the morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of black students walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium for a rally to protest against having to learn through Afrikaans in school. Many students who later participated in the protest arrived at school that morning without prior knowledge of the protest, yet agreed to become involved. The protest was intended to be peaceful and had been carefully planned by the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC) Action Committee,[16] with support from the wider Black Consciousness Movement. Teachers in Soweto also supported the march after the Action Committee emphasized good discipline and peaceful action.

Tsietsi Mashinini led students from Morris Isaacson High School to join up with others who walked from Naledi High School.[17] The students began the march only to find out that police had barricaded the road along their intended route. The leader of the action committee asked the crowd not to provoke the police and the march continued on another route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School.[18] The crowd of between 3,000 and 10,000 students made their way towards the area of the school. Students sang and waved placards with slogans such as, "Down with Afrikaans", "Viva Azania" and "If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu".[19]

Hector Pietso shot
One of the first school kids to be shot, 12-year-old Hector Pietso. The photograph taken of his body became a symbol of police brutality.

One of the first students to be shot dead was 13-year-old, Hector Pietso. He was shot at Orlando West High School and became the symbol of the Soweto uprising.[20]

The violence escalated as the students came under attack; bottle stores, and beer halls - seen as outposts of the apartheid government - were targeted as were the official outposts of the state. The violence abated by nightfall. Police vans and armoured vehicles patrolled the streets throughout the night.

Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested that the hospital provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds. The hospital administrator passed this request to the doctors, but the doctors refused to create the list. Doctors recorded bullet wounds as abscesses.[15][20]

The 1,500 heavily armed police officers deployed to Soweto on June 17 carried weapons including automatic rifles, stun guns, and carbines.[15] They drove around in armoured vehicles with helicopters monitoring the area from the sky. The South African Army was also ordered on standby as a tactical measure force.

Military - Student Clashes around the country

The police on duty had no special training in crowd control and did not even possess a loudhailer. They first tried to use dogs and teargas, but students killed two dogs and most of the teargas canisters proved to be defective. Police claimed that students had thrown stones, and that they, the police, had fired warning shots in the air. After Sergeant Hattingh fired the first fatal shot, chaos ensued. Student leaders were unable to disperse their followers. Students responded to the shootings with fury. Streets were barricaded, cars burned and two white officials killed. By lunchtime students were looting and burning government buildings and liquor stores across much of Soweto.

The brutal killing of the school children on June 16, 1976, shocked the international community. Newspapers across the world published Sam Nzima's photograph of a dying Hector Pietso on their front page. In the meantime, South African security forces, equipped with armored tanks and live ammunition, poured into Soweto. Their instructions were to shoot to kill, for the sake of "law and order." By night another eleven more people had been shot dead [21]. Students in Soweto responded by pelting the police with stones and attacking what they regarded to be symbols of the apartheid government. Across much of Soweto government buildings and liquor stores were looted and burned.

On the second day of the uprising, the violence spread to African townships in the West Rand and Johannesburg. At the University of Witwatersrand, police broke up a group of 400 white students who had been marching to express their solidarity with the pupils of Soweto. On the third day, police began placing youth protestors in jail; students later testified to being tortured while imprisoned. What began as a local demonstration against the Afrikaans language decree quickly turned into a countrywide youth uprising against apartheid oppression. Kgati Sathekge, current Director for Communications and Marketing for the Ministry of Social Development, was one of thousands of students from Atterridgeville, an African township near Pretoria, who took part in the protests in that region. In his 2006 interview, he explained:

We could not accept that type of behavior . . . personally it was a great shock. We started organizing protests . . . On June 21 when students came to school we mobilized them and said we're not going to go to school that day, we'll engage in protest marches throughout the township . . . Different government offices were targeted and burned down including . . .buildings seen as symbols of oppression [such as] government stores, bottle (alcohol) stores, beer halls.

The police shootings and the defiant response of Afrikan students in Soweto emboldened youth throughout the country to wage protests. Students in Port Elizabeth mobilized in their schools, leading to a conflict between the police and a crowd of 4,000 high school students and township residents en route to the local soccer stadium that left eight residents dead. Shepi Mati, who arrived in Port Elizabeth at the end of 1976 to attend high school, recalls the violence and tension of that time:

On any given day, you would just hear this sound – it was a very ominous sound – you could feel it in the air. And suddenly there would be a Caspir that comes past, a police armored car – woosh – throwing tear gas or shooting as it goes past. This was really my welcome to Port Elizabeth.

Protests weren't exclusively carried out by Afrikans. Arabs, Indians and whites also took part. Indian student Yusuf Omar describes from his perspective in an Indian township of Johannesburg:

"It's a virtual world when it comes to emotion … We weren't seeing the truth, but we got it from comrades… In our own schools, we did what we could."

Coloured and African high school students in Cape Town and its surrounding areas expressed solidarity with students in Soweto, while black students at the University of the Western Cape boycotted their classes for a week and clashed with police and university authorities. Demonstrations also took place in rural boarding schools and black University campuses all over the country.[22]

To sustain resistance, leaders of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC, founded in August 1976) decided to involve adults in the protests in order to build inter-generational unity and to strike an economic blow against apartheid. From August through December 1976, SSRC leaders organized a number of campaigns, including stay-at-homes (short strikes) for adult workers, marches to Johannesburg, anti-drinking campaigns, mass funerals (which became politically charged and often turned into protest rallies), and a Christmas consumer boycott. In preparation for the stay-at-homes, the SSRC printed flyers urging adults to participate. One read, "...the scrapping of BANTU EDUCATION, the RELEASE of Prisoners detained during the demos [demonstrations], and the overthrowal of oppression, we the students call on our parents to stay at home and not go to work from Monday"[23]. Sporadic clashes between students and police continued into 1977; by the end of the year, the racist aparteid government acknowledged that nearly 600 people had been killed, although recent research showed that at least 3,000 people died. Thousands more were imprisoned and many black South Africans fled into exile or joined the armed struggle.[1] Cite error: The opening <ref> tag is malformed or has a bad name


The aftermath of the uprising established the leading role of the African National Congress in the liberation struggle, as it was the body best able to channel and organize students seeking the overthrow of apartheid. So, although the Black Consiousness Movement's ideas had been important in creating the climate that gave the students the confidence to strike out, it was the ANC's non-racialism which came to dominate the discourse of liberation amongst blacks. Like the situation in many conflicts between Europeans and Afrikans, ideas that are perceived as "too black" or "too segrated" fell by the wayside. The perspectives set out in Joe Slovo's essay No Middle Road - written at just this time and predicting the apartheid regime had only the choice between more repression and overthrow by the revolutionaries - were highly influential.[24]

The Soweto Uprising was a turning point in the liberation struggle in South Africa. Prior to this event, the liberation struggle was being fought outside of South Africa, mostly in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), South West Africa (later Namibia) and Angola. But from this moment onwards, the struggle became internal and the government security forces were split between external operations and internal operations. Thus stretching out the military, not allowing them to focus forces on one theater of the war.

The clashes also occurred at a time when the South African Government was being forced to "transform" apartheid in international eyes towards a more "benign" form. In October 1976, Transkei, the first Bantustan, was proclaimed "independent" by the South African Government. This attempt to showcase supposed South African "commitment" to self-determination backfired, however, when Transkei was internationally derided as a puppet state.

For the state the uprising marked the most fundamental challenge yet to apartheid and the economic (see below) and political instability it caused was heightened by the strengthening international boycott. It was a further 14 years before Mandela was released, but at no point was the state able to restore the relative peace and social stability of the early 1970s as black resistance grew.

Many white South African citizens were outraged at the government's actions in Soweto, and about 300 white students from the University of the Witwatersrand marched through Johannesburg's city centre in protest of the killing of children. Black workers went on strike as well and joined them as the campaign progressed. Riots also broke out in the black townships of other cities in South Africa.

Student organizations directed the energy and anger of the youth toward political resistance. Students in Thembisa organized a successful and non-violent solidarity march, but a similar protest held in Kagiso led to police stopping a group of participants and forcing them to retreat, before killing at least five people while waiting for reinforcements. The violence only died down on June 18. The University of Zululand's records and administration buildings were set ablaze, and 33 people died in incidents in Port Elizabeth in August. In Cape Town 92 people died between August and September.

Most of the bloodshed had finished by the close of 1976.

The continued clashes in Soweto caused economic instability. The South African rand, the money used in South Africa devalued fast and the government was plunged into a crisis.

The African National Congress printed and distributed leaflets with the slogan "Free Mandela, Hang Vorster", immediately linking the language issue to its revolutionary heritage and programme and helping establish its leading role (see Barush Hirson's "Year of Fire, Year of Ash" for a discussion of the ANC's ability to channel and direct the popular anger).

International reaction

The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 392 strongly condemned the incident and the apartheid regime.

Henry Kissinger, United States United States Secretary of State at the time, was about to visit South Africa at the time of the riot, and said that the uprisings cast a negative light on the entire country.

African National Congress (ANC) exiles called for international action and more economic sanctions against South Africa.

In the media

Images of the riots spread all over the world, shocking millions. The photograph of Hector Pietso's dead body, as captured by photo-journalist Sam Nzima, caused outrage and brought down international condemnation on the Apartheid government.

The Soweto riots are depicted in the 1987 film by director Richard Attenborough, Cry Freedom, and in the 1992 musical film Sarafina!. The riots also inspired a novel by Andre Brink called A Dry White Season, and a 1989 movie of the same title.


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  11. The Rise and Possible Demise of Afrikaans as a Public Language
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